“Sustainability is gaining momentum, the sector is growing rapidly,” begins Nicolette Naumann, Vice President of the annual Ambiente international trade fair in Frankfurt, an immense exhibition of the latest design trends and innovations in household décor from across the globe. Nicolette is commenting on a phenomenon that the market-forecasting masterminds behind Ambiente have been watching year-on-year – a consistent increase in interest in sustainable and ethically-sourced homewares.
For many, the shine has well and truly worn off benign mass production and increasingly consumers are happy to forego a short-term bargain for the peace of mind that comes with buying an item they can feel good about. And retailers are responding accordingly.
Hay’s sustainably-made Copenhague table and chair
Ambiente 2016, held in February, saw the debut of an “ethical style guide”. For the first time, visitors were given a separate brochure to distinguish and locate those exhibitors who produce their wares responsibly. The move shone a spotlight on those companies who demonstrate some level of concern about sustainability, and a distinctly harsh light on those who don’t.
And with an expert independent jury deciding which brands go into any of the six categories under the “ethical” umbrella, gone are the days of companies simply tagging on buzzwords and hoping for the best. In order to be included, exhibitors had to show that they used eco-friendly materials, eco-optimised production methods, fair and social production methods, re-/upcycling design, handmade manufacturing or sustainable innovation in some or all of their product lines.
Doherty cups by Jack Doherty
“This guide will undoubtedly encourage exhibitors and buyers to take on more social, economic and environmental responsibility,” Rudi Dalvai, President of the World Fair Trade Organisation and a member of the independent jury, said of its introduction. “I was quite surprised to see how many companies applied to be listed in the first edition.”
Copenhagen-based interior brand Broste Copenhagen were one such applicant. Their eco-friendly napkins and table linens fit the bill, as well as their perfume-free stearin candles, which are produced using renewable energy and have the SWAN Scandinavian eco-label. Kinta, a Dutch company that imports interior decoration items from Africa and the Philippines, and Hatale Fair Trade, a Nepali manufacturer and exporter of woollen felt items, knitwear and paper products (hatale in Nepali means ‘made by hand’) also made the grade.
Creepie stool by Whackpack furniture
But while the move by Ambiente to highlight ethical production is remarkable, it is by no means radical. Independent retailers like US-based The Citizenry (interviewed in the July/August issue) have been partnering with master artisans across the world to bring their work to a wider audience in a way that has a positive impact on their communities. High-street brand H&M have also been ahead of the mainstream with their Conscious collections, which emphasise transparency, responsible use of resources and ethical production. Earlier this year, new UK-based online store The People’s Emporium was founded with the intention of providing easy access to ethically-produced contemporary homewares.
The Conscious collection from H&M
In Ireland, we’ve seen a strong upturn in buying local, synergised with the resurgence of interest in stripped-back Irish craft. Mayo-based Superfolk express a passion for their wild Atlantic surroundings through simple but beautiful designs, “imbued with a poetic optimism for sustainable living”. In Kildare, Hey Bulldog design create unique handmade pieces from salvaged materials while in Dublin, Eva Power’s Ethical Silk Company provide socially conscious consumers with an ethical and eco-friendly way to buy silk bedding. And as the demand for traceable, respectfully made products continues to rise, stores like Irish Design Shop, Makers & Brothers and I am of Ireland are providing local artisans with an efficient and elegant path to market.
Ash and beech trivet by Superfolk
So although it’s certainly encouraging that we as consumers can collectively effect positive change up to the level of what has been described as the world’s most important consumer goods trade fair, it could be argued that many retailers could stand to catch up just a little quicker. Hopefully next year’s Ambiente ethical style guide will have even more names in it.
This article originally appeared in the May-June issue of Image Interiors & Living and has been modified for web. Read our interview with global-travellers The Citizenry on their new Ireland craft collection in the July/August issue, on shelves now.